In a recent post I looked at the sensitive subject of favelas and described some of the ways that you can get into trouble when talking about them. But did you know that even the name can stir controversy?
The term favela has an interesting history. Back in the 1890s, various Brazilian forces fought a series of escalating battles with a group of 30,000 settlers in Canudos, a remote town in Bahia. The settlers were led by a charismatic mystic named Antônio Conselheiro who had spent much of his earlier life wandering the north-east of Brazil and picking up followers along the way.
Time and again, government forces underestimated the strength of the Conselheiro’s followers, suffering a series of humiliating defeats. Eventually the Minister of War got involved and sent a huge, well-armed force which utterly destroyed Canudos. It is said that more than 15,000 inhabitants were killed (many civilians were slaughtered after the initial resistance was stamped out).
This is the Favela Plant (Cnidoscolus quercifolius), common in Bahia and other semi-arid areas of Brazil. It has long spines, it is a skin irritant and has similar effects to cyanide when eaten! An appropriate namesake for such a prickly, difficult, even poisonous topic.
When the massacre was complete (1897), the soldiers made their way to Rio. When they were recruited they had been promised housing in return for victory, but when they arrived in the capital they got a shock.